Bush's image makeover

September 24, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- A device of political consultants in great favor these days is the television ad that shows a candidate "morphing" -- short for transmogrifying -- into someone or something other than what he's previously been. It's most often used by a candidate's foes to convey the notion that he has changed from Mr. Nice Guy to the devil incarnate.

President Bush's firm and sober speech to the nation, spelling out the scope of the terrorist threat and his objectives for combating it, appears to have worked the other way around.

For all practical purposes, it has converted his public image from a man on shaky, unfamiliar ground in foreign affairs to a forceful leader who has a precise and confident idea of where he's going.

Great national crises have a way of "morphing" presidents in the sense of sharply altering the public perception of them.

It happened to Mr. Bush's father when the derogatory appellation of "wimp" fell away with his commanding building of an international coalition and lightning use of American military power that reversed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.

The senior Mr. Bush's pledge that the invasion "will not stand," followed by effective action backing up his words, sent his approval ratings soaring, to the point that his re-election in 1992 was widely taken for granted. A number of prospective Democratic presidential challengers backed off for that reason.

Unfortunately for him, the morphing wore off when Mr. Hussein survived the military onslaught and when the American economy headed south, with the president failing to grasp that inaction on the domestic front could rob him of the political advantage of his military triumph. His Democratic opponent in 1992, Bill Clinton, found Mr. Bush's Achilles' heel with his strategy of "It's the economy, stupid."

The junior Mr. Bush's dynamic speech has effectively rallied the country to his side and has given the American people a reasoned justification of military action. At the same time, it has conveyed a commendable caution that, in unleashing the nation's fury against the perpetrators of the worst act of terrorism ever, the enemy not be painted with an indiscriminate racial or religious brush.

But just as was the case with his father in achieving an immediate morphing of his image, the follow-up will determine whether it will last, and for how long.

In some of George W. Bush's extemporaneous remarks before the speech to the nation, he came off somewhat as a gun-slinging cowboy, aping his father in saying that the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington somehow "will not stand." He singled out Osama bin Ladin as his prime target and promised to eradicate all terrorism, setting for himself an extremely high yardstick for success.

In his speech, however, he presented a more balanced and reasonable assessment, acknowledging more clearly the dimensions of the task and calling on the American people for continued solidarity and patience for the long haul.

Sustaining those attitudes now is part of his challenge. During the Vietnam war, another Texan, President Lyndon Johnson, in 1967 gave way to Wild West jingoism on a one-day trip to the war zone, calling on American troops to "nail the coonskin to the wall." It didn't happen, and as public support for his conduct of the war slipped, for all practical purposes he was driven from the presidency.

Mr. Bush at the outset of this crisis has both public and bipartisan political support bred of the horrible attack on America, comparable to the rallying around President Franklin D. Roosevelt upon the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Neither LBJ nor the senior Mr. Bush had that degree of support in their use of American military power.

That the fight Mr. Bush will wage will be a long-term, many-faceted affair will make it more difficult for him to maintain public support, particularly in the likelihood of ups and downs and disappointments along the way.

Also, holding to account the pledges of support from other nations may prove to be more elusive as time goes on.

But Mr. Bush, morphed in the public eye into a sure-footed leader by his tough yet not bellicose speech in an international spotlight, has made a commendable start in addressing the brutal events that overnight have so drastically altered his presidency.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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